A long-forgotten truth of NFL Blitz revealed itself to me as I looked to salt away my first victory: You don't salt away any victories in NFL Blitz. You want a time-consuming play? Unload a deep pass route, like the fondly remembered "Da Bomb."
I've become such a slave to clock management, not just in simulations of American football like Madden NFL and NCAA Football, but also Tecmo Super Bowl and even Madden NFL Arcade, EA Sports' previous attempt to serve up zany action and slapstick tackles. But Blitz, where every play is a pass (or is so designed, anyway), and the clock stops at the end of it, no matter what, reminds you that the only defense is a good offense.
Long rumored and carrying the kind of anticipation its NBA Jam cousin saw last year, NFL Blitz returned to modern-day gaming via the PlayStation Network (yesterday) and Xbox Live (today). The game brings back a lot of what you remember—first-and-30, flaming players, power ups and absolutely nothing that resembles the staid, conservative, play-not-to-lose game that so many NFL contests become, especially now that we've hit the playoffs.
It's in the little things where Blitz's relatively quiet release becomes apparent. The rosters appear to have been set, if not at the beginning of the season, then not soon after it started. All quarterbacks throw right-handed, a disappointment for fans of Michael Vick. Late hits are verboten thanks to an image-conscious NFL, which is heresy to those who remember the arcade original and its 1990s console ports.
Those are production shortcomings, to be sure but in an arcade game involving blink-of-an-eye action, they'll start to matter less if the gameplay is still compelling. I think that's why people are calling out the nitpicky stuff; the gameplay still is what you remember of Blitz, but it seems to lack the seasoning of the original, even with players running around like human barbecues. In other words, yes, Blitz is an entertaining romp but it lacks oomph, so everyone's looking for an empirical justification.
Once you see them, you can't unsee how safe all of the hits are. A lot of sacks end in shoves to the ground, a lot of passes over the middle conclude with ricochets and stumbles to the turf. There's a lot of period, not so much exclamation point, in the action. This, coupled with the commentary, reduces the game from a real free-for-all to a caricature of one.
Tim Kitzrow, so brilliant in NBA Jam (he was, in 2010, legitimately one of the best video game commenters in sports) isn't given much help with the addition of a booth partner in Brian Haley, and that's hard to say because I know the two are friends and comedians outside of this gig. It may be that the free-flowing action of basketball lends itself more to a what-will-he-say-next expectation; Kitzrow was also at his most hilarious when he was pretending to be both announcer and analyst. Haley, unfortunately, doesn't give a hard enough sell for his character—a former player, allegedly—in what I heard.
In the gameplay itself, quick decisions are the path to victory. There are a lot of weaving receiver patterns and funky backfield formations that can be used for toss-and-pass plays, but I rarely hit those for big gains, because they take so long to set up. In a Tecmo-esque way, you need the opponent to guess completely wrong (like, suicide blitz against a streak pattern) to produce yards after the catch. Otherwise it's a lot of station-to-station play, snap, pass, complete; wash, rinse, repeat.
As I said earlier, there's no running game unless you call a deep pass and the defense is in zone coverage, letting your quarterback scramble for it (Tim Tebow, true to his real life persona, was actually quite good at this.) So, sitting on a 7 point lead with a minute left, you have to start thinking in terms of baseball innings, because for sure the CPU or your opponent is getting the ball. Maybe even twice.
Quick release is also vital, and quarterback throwing animations seem to be standard regardless of who's in the pocket. That means you have no pocket, because if a defender is within three steps of you, it's sack city. The good news is a lot of crazy stuff gets completed. Like the lesson of clock management, you have to unlearn what you're conditioned to think about throwing into traffic with this game.
There is a ton of additional content that in my time so far has barely burbled up from the surface. There's Blitz Bucks, an in-game currency like Jam's system, which goes toward a la carte unlockables in the game's other modes; cheats also are available, and secret content galore is promised. This kind of diversity is what people demand from arcade sports titles, and it's why I've refrained from comparing Blitz to Madden NFL Arcade, because the latter is two years old and a lot thinner on content.
Arcade did get a roster update, though, and EA Sports has been conspicuously silent on whether Blitz will (and they didn't return an email last week asking whether it had committed to roster updates in NBA Jam). And while the focus here is entirely on action, and action entirely divorced from reality, it will still bother some football fans to see teams collectively rated below (or far above) how they performed in the season that concluded on Sunday.
The bottom line is that the long hiatus between arcade editions of Blitz may have hurt it more than NBA Jam. In Blitz's nine-year absence, not only have fans been conditioned to play football with less arcadelike impulses, the games have been known to penalize them if they try. Like a parent giving you permission to cuss, NFL Blitz is enjoyable and zany the first several times, but something that doesn't become habit forming.